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Blog: Adapting to the new normal

One of the great pleasures of working at EMEC is meeting the people who choose to come and work here, people who are willing to work on something new and inspirational, people who are willing to put their shoulders to the wheel and try and change the course of our previously carbon-based future.

As part of everybody’s induction, new staff members meet people from every team in the organisation to build an understanding of each other and EMEC as a whole. It was therefore a great pleasure to meet Paul Tait who has recently joined us to work as Environment and Consents Officer. The inductions are more difficult at the moment having to do these over Microsoft Teams however, we seem to be getting into something of a routine and some of the social inhibitions involved in talking to somebody over video link have effectively evaporated in the last three months.

It’s interesting to reflect on this change in behaviour; a change induced by the present crisis. Four months ago, organising a video conference with certain organisations was frankly a pain in the backside. Now it has become the norm. I can vividly remember trying to organise a video conference option for a meeting due to take place in London and the incredulity with which the suggestion was received. ‘A video call? No we’d prefer it if you came in’ and so it took two days, four flights, and a night’s accommodation to achieve. Suddenly, video conferencing has become absolutely normal and it will be interesting to see how, and indeed whether, these behaviours will be able to be continued.

However, it is clearly not the same. Meeting somebody for the first time over video link is not the same as shaking hands and sitting across a table and having a chat over a cup of coffee. Whilst we have a workaround due to the present restrictions, I’m absolutely sure that the need for comparative intimacy is a deep human emotion and one which I suspect we will seek to get back to as soon as it is legal or indeed medically advisable.

Of course, it’s tricky to perfectly interpret all the body language over a video link when it is live although this does seem to be becoming quite normal and even the interruptions of normal life into our video business lives has become acceptable. The odd door slamming, child wandering into frame or cat appearing on the keyboard have all become moments of light relief in the almost constant procession of two-inch square faces that appear on the screen throughout our working days.

And it’s also interesting to see that the prevalence of video and indeed our general orientation towards the screen, are being effectively used by imaginative companies. The single best example of this that I have seen popped into my inbox last week from Orbital Marine Power. The video of Andrew Scott explaining how their technology works and how they are single-mindedly pursuing the dream of harvesting energy from the motion of the planet and our largest satellite, the moon is frankly inspirational. The production values of the video and the sincerity of Andrew’s delivery come screaming through the screen. Knowing Andrew in real life I can absolutely attest to the fact that the camera has accurately captured his passion, determination, and drive.

It calls me to think back to what brought me into engineering in the first place. It was indeed films (they were films in those days, not videos) of large pieces of earth moving equipment and films shot by JCB that first sparked my interest in civil engineering. The films of Jacques Cousteau did the same for my interest in diving and finally, a Sunday afternoon TV programme called “A house for the future” by Granada TV brought the possibilities of renewables to the front of my mind. The sum of those programmes clearly formed part of the genesis of my passion to drive the country towards a zero carbon future. If you have any impressionable young people around who are not sure what they want to do with their lives, I would absolutely recommend showing them Andrew’s video.

And it was fantastic to see that the work going on up here at 59 degrees north is recognised in Broadcasting House as being pioneering. The BBC News at 10 report on the 30 June, which followed the Prime Minister’s announcement of the support for hydrogen-based projects, featured Orkney, and indeed EMEC’s facilities, alongside footage of one of our innovative hydrogen projects. The electric aircraft that featured in the BBC News at 10 report is due to be converted to hydrogen and EMEC is a core partner in the project (HyFlyer), which will bring this small hydrogen-powered aircraft for demonstration flights up in Orkney. Indeed, the hydrogen refuelling truck that we have commissioned for these trials is about to be handed over by Fuel Cell Systems Ltd and we are looking forward to seeing it support these exciting trials.

HyFlyer H2 refuelling truck (credit Fuel Cell Systems Ltd) 640

HyFlyer H2 refuelling truck (credit Fuel Cell Systems Ltd)

EMEC is also looking forward to the return of its electrolyser to Eday in the coming weeks, following upgrades by ITM Power of Sheffield. The assorted hydrogen projects which started a few years ago are about to take a major step forward when hydrogen production recommences and the planned supply of gas to Orkney Ferries fleet is able to commence in anger.

At EMEC we have always striven to make sure we give innovation both the space it needs, but also a shop window in which to show off the possibilities and practicalities. One of the tasks that we face is to make sure that the opportunities we can see for the use of hydrogen in shipping is made visible to the wider public. As a maritime nation the UK is beginning to show that the potential to power our future shipping by the use of renewably harvested energy not only provides a means to exploit the abundant renewables we have, but it is also a fertile ground for future innovation.

Spring/summer usually marks a busy event season with EMEC preparing exhibition stands, attending conferences and speaking in panel sessions to spread the word of the great work happening on Orkney, but all of that understandably ground to a halt with lockdown. So EMEC is seeing how we can adapt to the present new normal. Many events in the energy calendar have been brought online and we recently showcased the developing hydrogen innovation work on the islands by hosting a webinar on decarbonising Orkney’s lifeline services (ferries and planes) using hydrogen.

Despite the missing elements of personal contact (and the opportunity to put the world right in the bar) we found that the online format erased geographic barriers and increased access. Not only was it fantastic to welcome attendees from across the UK, Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, and Australia, but we also saw attendance by more junior staff. While often hard to justify sending someone halfway across the planet to attend events due to the cost and climate impact, virtual events allow information to permeate further into organisations. This really is an unforeseen benefit of the digitisation and has made our islands more visible far and wide.

So in conclusion; Although we have not yet established our ‘new normal’ I am hugely encouraged to see how EMEC and our clients have adapted to the pandemic’s challenges and also how innovation continues to thrive. It will be interesting to see if, in 20 years from now, somebody else is recording a similar blog that is able to trace their genesis of ideas back to Orbital Marine Power’s video or publicity around hydrogen powered aircraft and ships or even a webinar they watched during lockdown.

Personally I can’t wait for the opportunity to meet new, young innovators and hear how their ideas are going to change the world as we build back better. If we can meet in person that will be great; if it has to stay on-line a bit longer then we’ll make it work. It’s what we do.

Neil Kermode (Credit Colin Keldie) 150





Neil Kermode
EMEC Managing Director








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